Thursday, February 07, 2013

A Remarkable Woman

It's been a little over a year that my mother in law, Virginia Mayhan, died of congestive heart failure. Her life was a testament to her love for her family and her devotion to her Catholic faith.  

She was married to her husband Al for 53 years before he passed away just a year before she did. Together they had seven children. Al worked in civil service for the Air Force during his career, and progressed to the point of being responsible for hundreds of people, creating stresses that wives, at times, must endure. But she was no shrinking violet! If her husband or her kids needed something and there was no existing way to meet those needs, she created new conditions to make it happen. For example, her two older daughters, Diane and Mary, were athletic, but there were very few athletic outlets for girls in the mid 1970’s in Montgomery, so Virginia created an independent softball league behind Goodwyn Middle School and manned the concession stand each game to pay the umpires and run the league. Eventually, the city of Montgomery realized Virginia was onto something, and opened up softball leagues across the city, leagues which thrive to this day.

And woe to the person who slighted her kids! I like telling the story of my mentor and good friend, Tom Doyle. For over 30 years, the tradition at Montgomery Catholic High School graduations was for the principal to roast each of the graduates. Tom Doyle started that tradition; we did it in tandem as president and principal for 13 years, and then I continued it forward when Tom left.  Catholics in Montgomery were very familiar with the practice and the graduates looked forward to it, but few knew its origin. In May of 1979, then principal Tom learned two hours before graduation that his speaker had canceled. Taking out a paper napkin at a restaurant, he scribbled some remarks for each graduate, and a cherished tradition was borne--except that he inadvertently skipped over one graduate-- my wife, Diane! Virginia was furious, convinced that Tom had done it deliberately. But being a good, Christian woman, she forgave him—about ten years later!  

Virginia was a woman of deep and simple faith, with a special devotion to Mary. She prayed the rosary often, and I know she brought all her worries--about her husband and children, about her brothers and sisters who preceded her in death, about her mother and father, and in those final years, about her own death--to the Lord. With her husband Al she sacrificed to send all seven children of her children to Catholic schools, because they both believed that Catholic schools were important to raising their kids in the faith.  Being in civil service, they moved often in the early years, and she and Al told me the way they picked out a house in a new city was to first find out where the Catholic school was, and then pick a house nearby--to which I often replied, with appreciation, “They don’t make families like you anymore.”

Indeed they don’t.

Virginia battled through a variety of health problems with strong resolve--motivated, I believe, by a love for her family. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1980’s, resulting in a mastectomy. Five years later, the cancer re-occurred and she underwent radiation treatment. In the late 1990’s she developed diabetes, and somewhere around 2005 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Though the doctors told our family to “gather” to pay last respects about six years ago, Virginia insisted she "wasn’t going anywhere” until she celebrated her fiftieth anniversary with Al. When that came and went, she declared she wasn’t dying until she attended the wedding of her youngest son, Danny, a year later. After the wedding, she fought on to care for her husband, who was diagnosed late in life with leukemia and kidney failure.  It was only after his death, when she was sure that everyone in her family was accounted for, I think, that she gave herself “permission” to die. But even then, she battled through to her last breath, maintaining a sense of humor in those last days, enjoying the company of her three devoted daughters, Diane, Mary and Rita, and her four sons Albert, Mike, Jim and Danny, who came to visit often. 

Virginia was the fire that lit our family, and I say “our” because from the very beginning, Virginia welcomed me in. When I first got married, I flinched every time I addressed her, not knowing what to call her.  I tried “Mrs. Mayhan” for a while.  “Call me Mom,” she would tell me, smiling.  That was hard for me, because I already had a wonderful mother. So I called her “Virginia” for a number of years after that. “Call me Mom,” she would insist, privately.  At some point over the course of the 26 years I knew her, I guess I began calling her “Mom” without noticing.

It’s been a little over a year now, Mom.  We miss you.

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